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Movie Star Chris Hemsworth Still Insists on Auditioning

Movie Star Chris Hemsworth Still Insists on Auditioning
Photo Source: David Leyes

Chris Hemsworth, despite his box office clout, auditioned for “Rush”—which no one asked him to do. The Australian actor was shooting “The Avengers” in New Mexico and looking for something outside the fantasy realm after roles in “Star Trek,” “Thor,” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.” He came across Peter Morgan’s script, set during the 1976 Formula One racing season and centered on the rivalry between fun-loving party animal James Hunt, a Brit who operates mostly on instinct behind the wheel, and Austrian Niki Lauda, a caustic loner who is much more scientific and methodical in his racing. “I needed something like this,” Hemsworth says, sitting in a hotel bar mere hours before the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I was at a place where I was getting offers, and I could feel myself becoming a commodity—someone who could get films financed. But I didn’t feel the interest of great filmmakers seeking me out.”

The director behind “Rush” was Ron Howard, the kind of filmmaker who prompted Hemsworth to get into the business. And though Howard had expressed interest in meeting the actor the next time he came to L.A., Hemsworth didn’t want to wait. “I wasn’t sitting around for this one; I was going to be proactive,” he says. “So I picked a monologue from the film that I thought summed up what the story was about, and I had my wife film me.” The monologue he selected has Hunt explaining the appeal of racing—how drivers feel most alive when facing the prospect of death. Hemsworth’s wife, actor Elsa Pataky, turned out to be a great audition coach. “Fifteen takes in, she stopped me and said, ‘Bullshit. I don’t believe it,’ ” he recalls with a laugh. “She was really cracking the whip on me, because I was present in the voice and the brashness, but she didn’t buy it. She said to me, ‘Why do they do this? What’s the attraction?’ ” And that, according to Hemsworth, was where his true understanding of Hunt kicked off. “I suddenly understood the seriousness of what was happening here, how the fear of death gives you an immediacy nothing else can. It’s why we climb mountains; it’s why we jump out of planes. We live so much in the past and future, this forces you to be in the moment. The only other option is death.”


It was certainly enough to convince Howard, who quickly cast Hemsworth—though the actor had his doubts. “I swear to God, for three-quarters of the movie I thought he was disappointed,” he says. “It’s natural of actors to think that.” But in perhaps the biggest testament to his talent, the pair will re-team shortly for “In the Heart of the Sea,” a script Hemsworth suggested to Howard. “He had read it before and liked it but thought he couldn’t do anything with it. But when he had a second look, he kind of fell in love with it. And I was like, ‘Wow, he likes me!’ ”

On reflection, it’s hard to believe that anyone other than Hemsworth could have played Hunt. In some ways, he’s reminiscent of the heroic types he specializes in—cocky, confident, but undeniably charming. Early in the film, Hemsworth-as-Hunt walks into a hospital and causes the staff to swoon. It’s a true movie-star entrance, the likes of which is rarely seen on film these days. And in a happy coincidence, he looks just like Hunt in his prime. But “Rush” was a chance for him to tell a story without wielding a hammer or being overshadowed by special effects. “It was exciting to jump into something where the spectacle of what you’re doing wasn’t going to overshadow the truth and story and characters,” he says. “In the past there have been times it didn’t matter what you did on the screen when you’re up against the visual smorgasbord of special effects.”

Unlike his characters, Hemsworth is being modest; one of the reasons he has stood out from the crowd is his ability to bring humanity and presence to roles that are sometimes literal cartoons. There are many reasons “Thor” shouldn’t have worked—it was about a Norse god whose weapon is a giant hammer, for crying out loud—yet thanks to director Kenneth Branagh and Hemsworth, it became Shakespearean. How did Hemsworth know the whole thing wouldn’t be just silly? “I did feel silly, is the truth,” he says. “About a week before the movie came out I went, ‘Oh, my God, what if this doesn’t work? What if this is entirely ridiculous?’ But having someone like Ken at the head, driving the ship, and the cast he pulled together, it sort of had to have that integrity. And he was insistent on being respectful but fun.” Hemsworth adds that he has been lucky to collaborate with great visionaries. “At the risk of sounding overly sincere, you can have all the fucking skill in the world, but if you don’t have the right people around you putting the pieces together, you’re nothing. I’ve been blessed, starting with the likes of J.J. Abrams all the way to Ron Howard.”

His primary collaborator in “Rush” is the actor who plays Lauda, German star Daniel Brühl, perhaps best known to American audiences as the lovelorn sniper in “Inglourious Basterds.” Together the two are their own special effect. But unlike their quarreling film counterparts, the duo have nothing but love and respect for each other. Though Hunt spends most of the film mocking Lauda’s appearance—the latter was given the unkind nickname “the Rat”—there is an obvious chemistry onscreen. “Daniel and I would joke that we were making a romantic comedy,” Hemsworth says. Brühl compares his co-star to Cary Grant, in that “he does this amazing work and makes it look easy. To the point where I hope people won’t take him for granted.” Brühl, who wears false teeth to mimic Lauda’s appearance, says he was grateful for the physical alteration. “It’s hard enough to compete with Chris Hemsworth anyway. So better to have these prosthetics so we just go full-on and have the maximum contrast between us two.” 

Hemsworth’s looks come up a lot in conversation. Sitting down with writer Morgan immediately after Hemsworth, the first thing he does is apologize for going from “that face to mine.” And like Brühl, more than one person has wondered if Hemsworth’s acting will be truly appreciated in “Rush” or if he’ll be viewed as just another pretty face. Ask Hemsworth about it, and for the first time the talkative actor doesn’t have a quick response. “How do I answer this without sounding like a jerk?” he finally says with a laugh. “However you look, there are advantages and limitations. You look like this, and you fit into a character role. You look like that, you fall into a superhero role. It’s funny because there are times I want that smaller character thing, and the guy doing the character role is probably like, ‘Just let me play a leading man!’ We’re constantly greedy and unsatisfied.”

At the end of the day, the actor says he’s happy to be working at all. “I dare not complain about any of it, for fear it will be ripped out of my hands,” he says. “And that can happen; it’s the nature of what we do. There is no constant. I’ve been well aware of the frailty of this business for years.”

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